The Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times is absolutely incredible. I can’t even begin to describe it properly in this space; really, you’ve got to read the whole article about it, even if that does take 45 minutes. They will be 45 minutes well spent, as this is without question the journalistic scandal of the (admittedly young) century. Check out Andrew Sullivan’s excellent observations, too. But here is the gist, very briefly:
A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found. The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.
The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
Heads must roll for this. I don’t mean Blair’s; he’s already gone, having resigned earlier this month after being caught for committing plagiarism in an article late last month (just the tip of an enormous iceberg, as it turns out). No, I mean Blair’s editors. Some of their heads must roll, too.
You see, some editors saw this coming. Some of those editors told their superiors. Some of those superiors didn’t listen. Others listened selectively. Bad decisions were made, inexcusably bad and stupid decisions. Lots of them. It’s a long story, and like I keep saying, you’ve got to read the whole thing to even begin to grasp it. But the point is, the whole communication system within the New York Times newsroom suffered a complete and utter breakdown.
This is a systematic, newspaper-wide failure. Jayson Blair is the perpetrator, yes, but it is utterly unacceptable that he was not stopped earlier. As 9/11 was to the intelligence community, as the Catholic priest sex scandal was to the church hierarchy, so is the Jayson Blair debacle to the New York Times editorial staff. And because, despite my recent rightward leanings, I still have a good deal of respect and admiration for the Times, it bothers me. A lot.
I am not one to say “heads must roll” at the drop of a hat. Indeed, I am generally averse to that phrase, and the sentiment that usually lies behind it. Part of this aversion stems from my dad’s frequent, and quite correct, criticism that Americans too often believe we can create perfection on earth, as evidenced by the empty promises such as “let us make sure this never happens again” that tend to follow any sort of disaster. Perfection on earth is impossible; human beings are imperfect, and we should not lash out at them for forgivable imperfections, even if those imperfections cause us great anguish.
Moreover, I am particularly averse to the phrase “heads must roll” as applied to newspaper editors, for personal reasons. My head rolled once — over a “mistake” at the Daily Trojan that I believe really wasn’t a mistake at all, but regardless of that — I was asked to resign an editorial position because my superiors believed heads had to roll, and mine was the one on the chopping block. So I know “heads must roll” is a sentiment that can be, and often is, abused. But I still think, in this case, that heads must roll.
Sometimes, the very fact of a preventable, catastrophic disaster is enough that the people who could have prevented it, who should have prevented it, whose very job description includes preventing it, can no longer be trusted to do their jobs properly. In cases like this, even if you feel bad for those people, even if they have halfway valid excuses (and I’m not sure some Times editors have even that), you still have to get rid of them. Not end their careers, not tarnish them forever, but fire them. Let them find a new job. Or, at the very least, give them the option of either resignation or demotion. If only as a cautionary tale, these people cannot be allowed to go unpunished.
That would include Howell Raines, the executive editor of the Times. He is ultimately responsible for the whole paper, and the paper has suffered a catastrophic failure here. If a corporation’s earnings plummet, its CEO is fired; if a government agency suffers a major scandal, its secretary is sacked; and so should Howell Raines be replaced. (Indeed, if an equivalent scandal happened at any government agency — something going straight to the core of the agency’s mission, as this goes straight to the Times’s core mission of reporting the truth — I suspect the Times editorial board would be clamoring for the removal of the agency’s head. The same should apply here.)
Arthur Sulzberger, the ball is in your court. Demote Raines, or let him find work elsewhere. But he has no place as the leader of the New York Times. Not now, not after this.
Unfortunately, I fear that heads as big as Raines’s will not roll. The Times article includes this passage:
But Mr. Sulzberger emphasized that as The New York Times continues to examine how its employees and readers were betrayed, there will be no newsroom search for scapegoats. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” he said. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives â€” either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”
Yes, the person who did this is Jayson Blair. But the people who allowed it to happen are Howell Raines and a host of others. Unfortunately, if Sulzberger’s attitude doesn’t change, they will not suffer for their crimes of negligence. Instead, it will be the Jenny Medinas of the world who will suffer. Young reporters, former interns, etc. — like Medina, the former Daily Trojan editor who interned last summer for the Times and, last I heard, was still writing for them — will now be under incredible scrutiny, and I fear it will be increasingly difficult to get promoted from the bottom up.
That’s unfortunate, but ultimately, understandable and even fair. What isn’t fair is if the higher-ups get off scot free, and only the lower-level staffers suffer. It’s not a matter of finding “scapegoats.” It’s a matter of holding the responsible people responsible.
I hope I get lots of comments on this, because I know I’m being very harsh, and I’d love to hear outside opinions about whether that harshness translates into unfairness. I don’t think it does, but I’m not unwilling to be swayed by a good argument.
I should say that the Times should be greatly credited for reporting on this so openly and in such great detail, and putting it in the Sunday paper, no less. I also appreciate the apology:
For all of the falsifications and plagiarism, The Times apologizes to its readers in the first instance, and to those who have figured in improper coverage. It apologizes, too, to those whose work was purloined and to all conscientious journalists whose professional trust has been betrayed by this episode.
Thanks. But I still might cancel my subscription. I have been thinking about doing so anyway, for financial reasons. Now it may become a matter of principle. I can see the letter now: “Dear Mr. Sulzberger, I am cancelling my subscription due to your shameless refusal to hold upper management accountable for their inexcusable negligence in the Jayson Blair debacle.”